The hit no doubt made Morgan Rielly and the Maple Leafs feel good in the moment, but with the Department of Player Safety now involved, the Maple Leafs will be without its top defenceman for at least a few games of the playoff drive.
As expected Rielly is being called on the carpet by the NHL’s DOPS for Saturday’s cross-check on Ridly Greig of the Ottawa Senators. Its offer of an in-person hearing versus handing out an immediate suspension is an ominous signal his sentence could be up to six games or more.
Sunday’s announcement said the date and time of the hearing were yet to be determined, given it’s the weekend and the Leafs don’t play again until Tuesday versus St. Louis.
Rielly suddenly went from Lady Byng Trophy candidate to raging bull after Greig tried to rub the Leafs’ noses in a 5-3 loss with a heavy slap shot on an uncontested empty net goal before the Leafs and many travelling fans at the loud Canadian Tire Centre. Rielly stalked Greig as he celebrated his goal and as the surprised Senator turned to face him, Rielly aimed his stick at Greig’s head. Greig was down a few moments but able to skate off. Rielly went right to the Toronto room with a major and game misconduct.
As it was the love-‘em-or-loathe-‘em Leafs on Hockey Night In Canada, a firestorm of debate erupted before Greig had even hit the ice.
The Toronto Sun’s online story sparked nearly 200 comments, while TV, talk radio and the internet were either chastising Rielly’s reckless action or cheering him for taking Greig to task. Many thought such bold initiative has been missing in the Leafs team DNA, though such a blatant check was totally out of character for Rielly.
Leaf coach Sheldon Keefe fanned the flames, calling his alternate captain’s action “appropriate” and while some Senators players knew why the Leafs would be upset with Greig’s show-boating, coach Jacques Martin huffed about empty net etiquette being a misnomer.
“Whether he shoots it or pushes it in (what Rielly did) shouldn’t happen,” Martin said. “That’s not a hockey play.”
The latter is a comment often applied to the video DOPS puts out to support its rulings in multi-game suspensions.
Rielly didn’t speak to the media and Sunday was a team day off.
While the 819-game veteran has never been suspended, a clean record did not influence George Parros and the DOPS when it gave Leaf teammate Jason Spezza, six games in 2021 for kneeing Neal Pionk of the Winnipeg Jets. That was later reduced to four upon Spezza’s appeal to commissioner Gary Bettman.
The Leafs have three home games this week versus St. Louis, Philadelphia and Anaheim and on Saturday were already low on defencemen with Mark Giordano day-to-day with a lower body injury and Conor Timmins too sick to travel. Keefe pressed William Lagesson into his first game since Dec. 29 and will now likely hang on to Max Lajoie, who was called up from the Marlies Saturday as a precaution.
This circumstance might also spur general manager Brad Treliving to make the trade for blueline help that has been overdue when John Klingberg got hurt, Giordano needed load management and TJ Brodie has struggled. The trade deadline is March 8 and the Leafs need wins to secure a playoff spot.
Counting his assist Saturday before ejection, Rielly has 27 points in his last 28 games and had been named one of four Leafs to the all-star game. During that friendly a week earlier, the top NHL shooters were hammering pucks into empty nets before an appreciative Scotiabank Arena audience to measure who had the hardest shot.
The 15 penalty minutes from Rielly’s major and misconduct almost doubled his 49-game season total.